Grey Abbey House: Northern Ireland stately home with starring role in Agatha Christie drama
As a new drama focusing on the legendary mystery writer airs this Christmas, Linda Stewart goes on location to talk to some of the cast members about the story, which is based on real-life events
Surely Northern Ireland is overdue the Agatha Christie treatment? We have the spectacular landscapes, the stunning stately homes and the eerie castles - perfect locations for a big Christmas whodunnit.
And, yes, it's happened at last. Not only are we getting an Agatha Christie mystery filmed on the breathtaking Ards peninsula, but it's an Agatha Christie mystery that features Christie as the lead character.
Agatha and the Truth of Murder airs on Channel 5 this Christmas, the first drama ever to be commissioned by the channel, and is based on not one, but two real-life stories.
Filmed in the stunning Grey Abbey House in the village of Greyabbey earlier this autumn, Agatha and the Truth of Murder is a fictionalised account that brings together two events - Christie's mysterious 11-day disappearance and the still-unsolved murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, god-daughter and namesake of the famous medical pioneer.
Sunderland nurse Florence was found dead on a Sussex-bound train in 1920 after being brutally beaten, but her killer was never brought to justice.
This is where the new drama begins to diverge from historical events, as Pippa Haywood explains. Best-known for The Brittas Empire and, most recently The Bodyguard, she plays Florence's friend and colleague, Mabel, who becomes frustrated with the lack of progress in the case and launches her own investigation.
Unable to find the proof that would expose the murderer, she appeals for assistance from Agatha Christie. The crime novelist has just suffered a major blow, with her husband telling her he's in love with his secretary and wants a divorce. It comes as she worries that her ability to confound her audience is coming to an end - readers have started to figure out that the culprit is always the least likely suspect.
Seated in a chilly living room in Grey Abbey House with views over wintry parkland as filming came to a close this autumn, Pippa explains how events unfold in the new drama.
"The writer has very cleverly brought together two very real historical events - one was the 11 days of Agatha Christie's life that went missing," she says. "Nobody knows anymore than that she was found in a hotel in Harrogate 11 days later. And the other event was a real unsolved crime of that time that my character brings to Agatha.
"My character's called Mabel, and she was a Queen's Nurse who had a lifelong friendship with another nurse called Florence Nightingale Shore.
"She was murdered brutally on a train, and they never solved the crime.
"Six years after that crime, none of the police investigations has come to any fruition, and so Mabel has carried on trying to investigate it herself.
"She takes the crime to Agatha, to see if somebody who immerses themselves in those stories would be able to solve the crime, and that's where the fictional elements come in and the real-life stories end.
"But Agatha is in the process of splitting up with her husband and doesn't want a divorce but knows that she has to let him go - he's just sort of said he's off - so she has writer's block at the same time as this. And, obviously, Mabel has been traumatised by the loss of her dear, beloved friend."
Both women were strong, independent women of their day, Pippa says, with Mabel working on the front lines in the First World War and Agatha with her successful writing career.
"But they're both in a very vulnerable place and have both been traumatised by recent events," she adds. "So, it's a very rich situation for the playing of the character that you find these two women coming together, and from complete strangers through the machinations of how they try to solve this murder, actually developing a real friendship and a bond. You have the journey of their increasing friendship and working relationship, alongside the whodunnit, which is what makes it such a brilliant drama to watch, because it involves so much.
"It's not just the whodunnit, it is based on two real historical events, and there's the wonderful complexity of the points at which you meet these characters."
One of the stars of the drama is Grey Abbey House itself, which doubles as a host of different locations - from Agatha's home, empty and draped in dust sheets following her husband's shock departure, to the location where the pair carry out their investigation, and also a hospital.
"Agatha lives in Surrey, so it begins there and then goes off to Mabel attempting to solve the crime - so it's non-specific where that place is," Pippa explains.
"But this is just a brilliant location and place to film, so they very kindly shipped us all out here to enjoy Greyabbey and the delights of Crawfordsburn. We finish up in Belfast at the weekend, and Cultra at the Folk Museum, which was to look like the nurses' accommodation. Grey Abbey House is the setting for quite a few different places - it was a hospital yesterday downstairs. There's a sort of quite dark, dingy room downstairs which was perfect. Every room is so transformed.
"It's the setting of where we try to go and try to solve the crime, but I won't say any more than that about it. It doubles as Agatha's house, so different rooms are set up with different aspects and different furniture to look like different houses."
English actress Pippa has filmed in Northern Ireland before, but she was confined to Belfast on both occasions and missed out on seeing the countryside.
This time, the cast got to stay in the Crawfordsburn Inn, and she loved walking along the north Down coastal path.
"I've been walking up and down there earlier today, learning the lines and bumping into another person yet again walking their dog who thinks there's a madwoman talking to herself and walking through Crawfordsburn Country Park," she jokes.
"It happens quite often to me - I'm always walking and learning lines at the same time."
There was a lot of creative energy in this shoot and Pippa found it a great honour to be involved in such a ground-breaking production for Channel 5.
"This is the first time that Channel 5 have commissioned a drama at all," she says. "They've always bought in dramas before, so it's quite an honoured responsibility that we are the first production company to have been asked to do that."
At the shoot, Tim McInnerny, from Blackadder and Notting Hill, and Blake Harrison from The Inbetweeners explain their characters.
"My cousin has been murdered and we've all been brought into this house on a sort of false pretence, so that everybody can be there and everybody's a suspect - but while we're here something else terrible happens," Tim says.
"I suppose my character is upper middle-class, quite well off - not hugely wealthy or anything, but he's comfortably off.
"He loves his cousin, but also for reasons of inheritance he is also a suspect - and I don't like HIM," he adds, gesturing at Blake.
"We don't know a huge amount about anybody. I mean, there's a certain amount of mystery, which is kind of essential because you need that ambiguity, as in a regular Agatha Christie story, about whether you believe people are innocent or guilty right up until the last moment."
A moustachioed Blake says he plays a character called Travis Pickford - "your classic Cockney spiv character, someone who, rather than fight during the First World War, decided to profiteer from it by selling cigarettes, meat, sugar, whatever he can to soldiers, things like that".
"He is a thief by trade, but he was also arrested for the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore but later released, so he is a big suspect in this whole story," he explains.
"But he's also one of the only working-class mouthpieces in the show, so he shows a total disregard for the rituals or airs and graces of the upper classes, and is quite happy to ruffle a few feathers along the way.
"Generally, for the period stuff I do, I always have to have a moustache!"
Blake enjoyed the ensemble approach of this drama.
"It's a bit like a theatre company because we've all been thrust in together," he says. "It's a very high pace, but we've all been in a lot of scenes together, and when you have downtime, you're all chatting away together.
"I love being in an ensemble because I love learning from other actors and I love just getting to know people and having a chat. That's part of the fun.
"If you were doing a film or a one-man show and you were there on your own, in your downtime I imagine that after a while you would want some company."
It's not the first time Grey Abbey House has appeared in a TV show or the silver screen. The house is a location in BBC1's Mrs Wilson, the film of The Woman in White, and it hosted the first season of The Frankenstein Chronicles, starring Sean Bean.
As a result, owner Daphne Montgomery has witnessed some eerie scenes at her home since making Grey Abbey House available as a location.
"We've had the Frankenstein Chronicles, which was about Mary Shelley and the galvanometer, and also Burke and Hare," she says. "In the film was this story of Burke and Hare, how they used to be agents for dug-up bodies that they sold for medical research.
"So, we had a film in the walled garden of two men coming over the wall with lanterns - the graves had been made by the set designer - and these two criminals were feeling which was the most recently dug grave, so that the corpse could be dug up and taken and sold for research. It was a very sinister story."
Daphne thinks Northern Ireland has become very desirable as a location in recent years, and NI Screen has taken a video of the house and grounds which is kept on file for production teams scouting the area.
"They will go to NI Screen and they will say they are making a film and they want a location, which would be a railway station, a hospital, a prison, a private house, parkland," she says.
"It could be a very sinister house - it could be made very sinister, or it might be a house like this where each room was made to look different for the set for this particular film.
"We've had these four productions, each one very different, and you wouldn't recognise the rooms that they use. The set designers are very clever and brilliant - they can make a room look completely different.
"The set designer we've had is extremely good - he's been here once before. He knows the house. He will take photographs and then he will remove any piece of furniture, picture or anything that he doesn't need.
"Very carefully, his team will wrap it or take it to where it is stored in the granary in the garden, and then it will be brought back exactly as it was.
"Not only are the sets so beautifully set up, but it's very easy for us, very unobtrusive and the crews are excellent, the cast's always charming and the location managers are terrific.
"We couldn't ask for more from people coming in and using our house. It's fun to see what they're doing."
Agatha and the Truth of Murder airs on Channel 5 at 9pm on December 23